Halloween starts early this year (my favorite holiday, so I’m completely okay with that). So much sinister spookiness this week. Nightmares seeping into waking, crawling bogs, sentient mists. First, thanks to Emily and Michael DelGuadio for the prompts, which combined couldn’t help but evoke the awful (awe-ful) and otherworldly. My short list was anything but. It was painful to choose a mere three for the winner’s circle.
Tried and Tested by David Shakes: One of two metas this week (and I loved them both—for very different reasons). I loved the two aborted attempts before crumpling the paper, the comparison with the giants of the genre, and the seeping of the author’s voice into Tammy’s journal writing. And even though I recognized (as the one of the characters did—ultimately the author POV did) that we were in cliché territory, the features were just different enough to catch me up and make me want to learn how the old bones and last fall’s journal entry match up.
The Bog by Madilyn Quinn: Wonderful reverse-take on witch hunts, where muggles would accuse the gossips of witchcraft. Here, the witch is the authority with the power to condemn those who displease her. You’ve illustrated so well how common folk allow themselves to fall under the spell and support the tyranny of a strong personality. Talia’s a vivid character. The line “her lavender lips pull into a grin” highlights her affectation. I admire the MC’s spunk in the face of that. Talia’s parting challenge make her all the more formidable—and make the MC’s threat seem empty (and yet gives the reader a glimmer of hope).
Ghost of the Fog by Pattyann McCarthy: Clever! This was so deliberately overwrought that I couldn’t wait to get to the punch-line (although for a panicked moment, I feared the use of phrases like “languishing treacherously inside” and “fear encapsulates every cell” might not be ironic). They say it takes a great writer to pull off intentionally “poor” writing. Or was that dancers? I think it works for all artists. The voice is pure B-movie—and the perfect set up for the reveal of the true situation.
In the Zone by Voima Oy: Intriguingly surreal take. Makes me wonder what could be on the other side of the border to make crossing the Zone worth it. The parallels to immigrants crossing treacherous land-/sea-scapes keeps this one grounded. Fantastic how the zone affects each character differently. Delicious phrases like “flowers followed us with their eyes” and “flashed with the fireflies” made me think that the some might come to the Zone simply for the experience.
Living Forest by A S Gardana: Very cool premise. I love stories where the reader is asked to sympathize with a different species. The ending leaves us wondering if she’s managed to actually make it or if she’s hallucinating as she sinks into the mud. What really impresses me about this piece is how you’ve crafted a story replete with sensation yet with the absence of sight! I had to go back and check—yep, “imagery” without visual referents. I like the idea of closing ones eyes to “see” better.
Aubergine by Holly Geely: If I could have given an honorable mention, this would have been it. A surreal cavort through the creepiness, elephants and eggplants welcome. You had me giggling from the first sentence and kept me chuckling all the way through (haunted port-a-potty! “Crikey!” Aubergine-ious!). I fell in love with the rattle-spider immediately. I wouldn’t have enjoyed this story so much if it weren’t for the snaky trace of the dream crossing into reality. Thank you for the hilarity.
Delicious by K M Zafari: Ooo, creepy! What could be more horrifying than unwillingly participating in one’s own demise? The description of the creature is compelling especially as the different pieces of the MC’s sense organs take their places in the ugly decay of the creature. Some of my favorite lines: “I can almost taste the decay as it moistens the remnants of its rotting lips with my tongue” and “my pink tongue rests inside the decomposing mossy mouth.”
My Time Has Come by Ophelia Leong: A sad transition of a forest Fae becoming a fish, in the tragic way magic passes away from the material world. It starts off with a wonderfully gruesome image. Setting up the trees as the rivals is a refreshing angle as is the Fae as a tooth-and-clawed predator—making it very hard for me to decide which side to (ahem) root for.
Mother’s Milk by Tim Stevenson: The last line chills—especially in light of the title. Yep, that gave me shivers. You don’t have to work too hard to convince me that the beauty industry is evil and probably deserves such a fate, so my being creeped-out mixes with a perverse satisfaction. Clever incorporation of the “creeping fear” phrase. Loved the pervasive rose imagery (the symbolic contrast of the wilting ones and the thorns of the creation) and the organic description of the creation (at once strange and lovely).
The Canopy by Mark A. King: I love the message of this one–finding light in the darkness–and that Callum is the catalyst for that discovery. We don’t know how the MC lost his parents, and we don’t have to. It’s enough that the loss has kept the MC in the shrouded world below the canopy. The imagery is sublime. The treatment of fear as a companion to mortality is brilliant. Then Callum is born and the MC’s focus starts to creep upward. By the way, “cinereal” is my new favorite word.
The Dreamer by Foy S. Iver: Starts out whimsical, (loved “scolaughed and jeettered” so much!). Poor little Root. I was (erm—here I go again) rooting for him, but, alas, he meets a common arboreal fate. I adored the description of the alien, who very well might have been a moon fairy. Cool concept that “hope” of a tree can be used as fuel.
Going Underground by Mark A. King: Here’s one I want to give a special mention to. After two letters, I went straight to Wiki to confirm that these were all stations. Sure enough. My favorite part is the Underground likened to the roots of the city. The structure puts me in mind of the song “88 Lines about 44 Women” by The Nails (dating myself here): each line brief but gives us a real bit of the place. And the POV character dozes off before the last stop.
Blink by Sonya: A dream-messing-with-reality piece that managed to deliver a startling punch in a mere 100 words. I laughed out loud at the “movie I didn’t understand” reference to Inception. The final line got me, though. I’m completely chilled imagining what a hundred eyes blinking must sound like.
Isle of Roots by Catherine Connolly: This one lulled me with the siren song of its gorgeous language. I think this one contains the line that precisely describes the subject and atmosphere of the image, a poetically twisted sentence that just nails it: “The tree itself lies amidst a heart of knotted roots for those who swim tear salt tides to it, casting themselves towards the child-like keening reaching from the boughs into the ocean”. I got so tangled in the wonderful knots of phrases, I felt like pilgrim gripped in its clutches. My favorite: “Truth takes chances in the speaking”.
Whispers by M T Decker: Ha! A quick atmospheric whisper of a piece with a snappy twist. I love how we never really know what the first choice was that has brought the “we” to this state. Clever.
Sensing by Marie Mckay: Imaginative treatment, directly addressing the creeping fear as “you”, picking out facets of its character. We start in familiar territory, the spookiness of fear (blind birds, forked hands of tress). Then, fear becomes a predator. Finally, we’re left with fear being a goading motivator. And in so few words!
The Project by A J Walker: The cross-purposes are set up so well and with such economy. There is a definite beginning, middle and end of a full-fledged story, here. You lead the reader to want both Elizabeth and Mr. Martin to succeed in their goals: she to understand him and he to prove the truth of his visions. By the end, though, I realize that I’ve been set up in a be-careful-what-you-wish-for way. She does understand, and the truth of his “bad men” (that they’re hallucinations) comes to light in the most tragic way. I’m in awe of the seemingly effortless way the POV shifts from Elizabeth to Martin and then out to objective. It worked perfectly—and another example of knowing the rules (one POV per scene) and then breaking them as the situation demands. The situation does demand since the smooth shifts are the most effective way to tell this story.
Meta’d Out by David Shakes: The second of two meta-fictions, and yeah, I so very much feel for the voice here, fictionalized or not. Most of us have been there (at least twice a week). The deadly voice of doubt undermining the “just do it and enjoy” that has built up a passion for writing in the first place, the fear of not being able to do justice to a beautiful prompt, diminishing returns on novelty—yeah, yeah and more yeah. Loved the repetition of the creeping fear sentence.
Moving by Anita Harkness: Sweet! The entwining horror and lust reveals the elements that compel us regarding the awful/awe-ful. Exquisite comparison between arid Arizona and the Lovecraftian realm of Rhode Island. Thanks to Lovecraft, New England is the place where fear and passion meet. Love the echoes of the H.P. universe in details like “the oldest ones” and the mysterious swamp with things moving under the surface. A lot of great writing in here: “Here, whatever dies decays. It sinks into a sludge of terrifying possibilities” I also enjoy the take on “kindred spirits”—stripping all the rainbows and “woo” from the concept. Yes, these two are perfect for each other. May they live paranormally ever after.
Third Place: No Butterfly Wings by F E Clark: Oh, so painful and beautiful. You capture the frustration and agony of struggling to live with a pervasive yet inexplicable illness. The isolation, the loss of self, the unsung courage—and all in such incredible language. Phrases like “Tongue fumbling attempts at describing the hundred different intermittent symptoms” and “Crawling through the shattered glass of dependence, a creature half gone” and the comparison of self and friends “falling away” like autumn leaves eloquently illustrate the trials of disease. The breaking of the chrysalis to release not a butterfly but a partial morphed thing is as heartbreaking as it is heroic, leaving us with a sliver of hope that this will indeed be a new start.
Second Place: The Things That Live Here by A V Laidlaw: The first sentence pulls me right into the mystery, a mystery that casts a shadow over the intimate moment between mother and son. Loved how you set up the metaphor to take care of the photo prompt early on—but then it turns out that the metaphor is not merely fancy imagery. All the figurative language is just perfect—they never merely describe the physical reality of the thing described, but they also drop hints of the essence of the thing. The description of the father is a clear example of this (“laugh as solid as oakwood” and “scented of the rich earth”). The smallest details speak volumes: a stubborn cowlick, the iron key used to lock up. The slow pursuit of the trees coming after the boy is an excellent reason for “creeping fear”.
AND OUR WEEK FIVE WINNER IS:
Returned by Steph Ellis: So sinister, chilling, creepy—and that it stood out from the marshlands of exquisite creepiness this week is really a testament to the writing, here. From the imagery of the opening—perfectly reflecting the hauntingly evocative photo–to the ominous dramatic irony in the final image (a child running to join her parents), this one won me over. The double conflict between the hopefuls and Granny, between the living and the returned, layers the tension. As do the options Granny gives (What if Maryann chose “below”???) and the swirl of Maryann’s past swamping the present. The moment of taking over is a devastating swirl of sweet and awful. That poor puppy! Killing small animals might be in danger of becoming cliché in horror, but every once in awhile it wells up like fresh blood—as it does here, precisely because it’s incidental to the already established eeriness of the family and the take-over. The pair of sentences, “Someone else’s tear rolled down her cheek. Maryann laughed,” torture me: evil innocence shredding my sympathies to bits.
Congratulations FE, AV, and Steph! Steph’s story will appear on our blog tomorrow. Thank you to Nancy for judging and to all you wonderful writers for sharing your stories! Join us on Thursday for Week Six, judged by the incomparable Holly Geely!